Feng Zhang: Medicine's New Frontier
In 2013, when MIT molecular biologist Feng Zhang was just 32, he became the first scientist to successfully edit human cells using CRISPR, a gene-modifying technology that could ultimately be used to fix cellular mutations. The technology is now leading breakthroughs in treating HIV, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases – to say nothing of its potential for re-engineering coral reefs and harnessing algae's biopower. "It's like a renaissance period," Zhang says. "We have wanted to do this for a long time, and we are now reaching a stage where we can."
CRISPR uses a bacterial system to snip DNA with the simplicity of an Easy-Bake Oven. To treat diseases like leukemia and Alzheimer's, scientists foresee targeting genetic mutations with, well, near-surgical precision. At the same time, the tech is being used to research seed size, advance microscope resolution, modify pig organs and develop virus resistance. Another godfather of CRISPR, Harvard's George Church, is investigating whether CRISPR might even revive extinct species like the woolly mammoth – he's splicing its DNA into Asian elephant cells. CRISPR will soon become part of an emerging line of cancer gene therapies. "It's the holy grail for cancer," says Rick Young, whose MIT lab has deployed CRISPR to close in on a key genetic cause of the disease. "We're doing the best work of our careers – we're at the epicenter of a revolution."
Revolutions, though, can go awry. Recently, DARPA, a military research agency, began funding technology to thwart genetic catastrophes. Intelligence agencies reportedly have started their own development teams as well. "A thousand dollars of CRISPR stuff and a toilet, and you have a bioweapon," says Hank Greely, a Stanford bioethicist. "That makes me nervous."
For now, Zhang is leading a search for genomic tools that could one day surpass CRISPR, systems that work with even greater accuracy, speed and bulk. "It is an exciting time to be a biologist," he says. BW